In the hours that have passed since Baltimore County police officer Amy Caprio was killed, details have emerged about her death that have horrified and shocked our community. Dawnta Harris is charged with first-degree murder. If convicted, he faces a mandatory life sentence. We still do not know much about Mr. Harris. During his bail review hearing on Tuesday, we learned that he has a juvenile record for stealing cars and that he recently absconded from an unsecure juvenile facility. We also know that he is only 16 years old. He is being charged as an adult, but that is simply a legal fiction. Dawnta Harris is a child with all of the limitations that come with adolescence.
While many believe 16 years old is old enough to know right from wrong, the science around juvenile brain development tells a more complicated story. Studies of the brain have shown that juveniles are less likely than their adult counterparts to appropriately evaluate risks and consequences and are more impulsive when they make decisions. Although in most instances the law defines adulthood at 18, the brain is not fully developed until closer to age 25. We do not know what Mr. Harris was thinking at the time police say he drove a Jeep into Officer Caprio, but those factors very likely played a role in his actions.
The Supreme Court cared about that same neuroscience when it reached decisions in three landmark cases involving juveniles serving life sentences, Graham v. Florida, Miller v. Alabama, and Montgomery v. Louisiana. In those cases, the court recognized that children are fundamentally different than adults. In Graham v. Florida, the court noted “As compared to adults, juveniles have a lack of maturity and an underdeveloped sense of responsibility; they are more vulnerable or susceptible to negative influences and outside pressures, including peer pressure; and their characters are not as well formed.” The court went on to find that even children who commit heinous crimes are capable of change, and if they do, they must have a meaningful opportunity to rejoin the community one day. Denying children that right is cruel and unusual.
I represent men and women who were convicted of serious offenses they committed as children and were sentenced to life in prison. My clients have spent decades in prison atoning for their actions. They run rehabilitative programs for other inmates, attend college courses and lobby their state legislators for policy change. They have literally grown up in prison and demonstrate day after day the central truth of the Supreme Court’s holdings in Graham, Miller, and Montgomery: when given the opportunity, children are capable of proving they are more than the worst thing they have ever done. Justice requires that one day Dawnta Harris be given this opportunity too.
Officer Caprio lost her life much too soon in what can only be described as a truly senseless act. Her family is grieving. Her community is mourning. The loss to Officer Caprio’s family is irrefutable and permanent. Emotions are running high. The community wants justice and accountability. True justice requires accountability that is proportional to culpability. Our laws may allow us to charge Dawnta Harris as an adult, but he is a child. Recognizing that central fact and allowing it to guide how we think about accountability and punishment in this case does not dishonor Officer Caprio or forsake justice, it reinforces it.
Lila Meadows is a clinical fellow at the University of Baltimore’s Juvenile Justice Project.